Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Bishop's Sea: Our Ongoing Project of Building a Better, Stronger Past


This may or may not be on me, but it turns out that I don't have Sunday off. I suspect that after wasting far too much time trying to make iOS and Onedrive get along, I was not going to get a postblogging post up tomorrow anyway, but it sure isn't happening now.

I don't, however, want to leave the blog silent, and it occurs to me that I haven't written about the Columbus problem, either as it is traditionally understood, or as historiography seems finally prepared to confront it. 

If all we wanted was the story of  the impact of Christopher Columbus, this wouldn't be much of an exercise. Columbus was yet another Italian condottierre ("conductor," in the sense of "enterpeneur") who got backing for a speculative venture from a Western monarch in 1492. These guys are absolutely a dime a dozen, doing everything from raising regiments to building breakwaters to painting portraits. 

Columbus was a very good sailor, like many heroes of popular novels of knight errantry, who were certainly the role model for a youthful Columbus. (I hereby apologise to literary studies for appropriating their precious Emergent-Middle-Class-Art-Form-Except-For-All-Those-Exotic-Novels-Academia-Has-Retroactively-Authorised) of knight errantry. His proposed adventure was to sail westward from islands owned by that monarch to find new lands, again a well-worn sort of scheme. The particular details of the voyage were framed by the existing agreement with Portugal. To avoid Portuguese poaching and a conflict that Ferdinand and Isabella definitely did not want with the succession of Naples in the air, Columbus needed to find those islands in the same latitude band as the Canary Islands, something that previous voyages had not yielded. However, the latitude band stretched indefinitely westward to furthest Asia, and ",any people were saying" that a voyage all the way to the Indies was a practical thing to do. (Bishop De Las Casas recounts that Columbus saw some Asiatic corpses washed ashore on the island of Flores, for example.) 

Columbus was unable to keep to a latitude track, and so arrived on the shores of a mountainous island well to the south of the Canaries. Firmly located in the tropical rain belt, like the highlands of Guinea, both a contemporary and a modern geologist might suspect would yield placer gold, even if the locals did not wear gold jewelry. Placer mines worked originally by Spanish convicts were yielding a million pesos annually by 1512, says Hugh Thomas.  Columbus then returned to Europe via the Portuguese Azores and Lisbon, which was not exactly ideal. A treaty that recast the respective Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence in the Atlantic on longitudinal lines seemed called forr. This, while not technically practical, was sufficiently in the interest of  the Aragon/Castile codominium and Portugal, that it was duly negotiated in 1494. Since when has science been allowed to get in the way of progress? By this time Columbus had returned to his discovery with a massive fleet and perhaps 1200 colonists, keen to relieve the men he had left there late in the previous year 

If, as would now appear, there were fewer than 50,000 Tainos on the island of Hispaniola practicing a mobile lifestyle of hunting, gathering, landscape curation and gardening, it is hardly surprising that they were unable and unwilling to feed 35 European layabouts, and, given his urgency, it is unlikely that Columbus was entirely surprised to learn that they were all "cut off." Whether they were all actually dead is another question --right from the beginning we are faced with the problem of totalising narratives trying to write biographies. People don't generally like dying, and do their best to avoid it. I'm not saying that these guys were in much of a situation to avoid it, but it isn't as though we know. 

Columbus then tried to set up a colony with one hand while pushing forward with his explorations on the other. Cuba looked like a good place to explore, unfortunately since a voyage along the Cuban shore led him directly away from the urbanised areas of Mesoamerica that were not actually that far away, although he would have had to practically round Yucatan to reach even the northernmost outposts of urban civilisation in the north of Veracruz state. The voyage was interrupted by initial difficulties with the settlers, and Columbus returned to the Spanish court to defend his reputation against those who characterised his discovery as an island of hunger. 

It is likely that it was in the period between his March 1496 return and his next voyage of 10 March 1498 that Columbus did the self-directed geographical research from which he derived his outlandishly incorrect estimate of the size of the Earth, and not before 1492. His understandings prior to his first voyage were much more pragmatic and practical. It was, likewise, in these years and in the context of the developing conflict over Naples that the learned world first formulated its view that he had discovered a "New World," although it did not  hurt that the Crown authorised limited independent expeditions to the area, and here again the totalising narrative loses control of individuals, as exemplified by the controversy over the career of Amerigo Vespucci. Columbus' third voyage brought him the north coast of South America and pearling grounds off the north shore of Venezuela which were soon the second-largest revenue source for the Crown's New World monopoly. After further and entirely typical conflict with the locals, Columbus was sent home in chains, again and I cannot emphasise this too often, a perfectly typical flourish in a perfectly typical crown-colonist-adventurer conflict. 

Columbus' fourth voyage reached the limits of North America on the rainswept coast of Honduras and his own. While Columbus' run of successes and his ability to avoid mutinies, shipwrecks and maroonings stretches all credulity when compared with his contemporaries, this was just too much. He returned to Spain, wealthy on the family's negotiated share of the royal tenth, and puttered eccentrically through the few years left to him.

The real question of course, is something along the lines of "Why was Columbus a fraud who doesn't deserve an eighth of the royal quarter and the hereditary governorship of the island of Hispaniola?" This was the question, put by the royal advocates of the heirs of the house of Trastamera against the heirs of the house of Colon in 1508, the "Pleitos colombinos," extending, in true Bleak House fashion, until 1538. That being said, the key period of the suit would seem to be 1511-1526, when Diego Colon, son of Columbus, husband to Maria de Toledo, and nephew-at-law to the Duke of Alba, was Viceroy of the Indies and second Admiral of the Ocean Seas. This was also the period when Columbus' second, illegitimate son, Ferdinand, collected his vast library and published his biography of his father,  using many of the same materials as his friend, fellow historian and social activist, Bishop Bartolome de las Casas, author of A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which is about how social institutions which seem to have evolved under the governorship of Nicolas de Ovanda, and which Diego Colon fought during his viceroyship, had destroyed the Indies. De Las Casas was also deeply involved in attempts to establish a colony on a better social footing on the north coast of Venezuela, the same area that was the earliest source of controversy in the Columbian lawsuits. (The issue being whether Columbus in fact discovered them in his third voyage, as was claimed.)

At this point the case for throwing out all that we know about Columbus that was not published in 1493/4 seems pretty pressing. Ferdinand and Bishop de Las Casas had custody over the Admiral's papers, while the Crown's motive for suborning testimony seems overwhelming. The modern scholarship takes it for granted that the materials in de Las Casas and Ferdinand Columbus' accounts that are attributed to the Admiral have been emended, but recovering it seems beyond the power of conventional scholarship, although this has not stopped the modern school of numerical prose analysts. (Or of Springer Verlag, which continues to deny access to the cutting-edge 1993  article.)

Insofar as the new mood of skepticism guides scholarship, the following points:

i) Columbus was probably not the monomaniacal geographical theorist he has been portrayed as being until he was forced to defend his position at court in 1496--98. Stories about his navigational techniques and man-management techniques on the voyage out are fanciful. Like any skipper of his day, he kept a compass for bearings and candle-clocks for timing, and used them to time lead lines to estimate ship speed and dead reckonings, and heliacal risings for latitude fixes. As with his contemporaries, he didn't believe in maps because of their notorious inability to report longitudes, and was cautious in his approach to landfalls, relying on soundings, sea sense and sharp-eyed lookouts.

ii) The details of the early discoveries are so obscure because they lay in Portuguese waters until the Treaty of Tordesillas and not because Columbus or Martin Pinzon had already been to the New World, or knew someone who had been. Those are fancies of the Columbian lawsuit.  

iii) The obscurities of Columbus' early biography probably have to do with the fact that he, a parent, a more distant ancestor, or a sibling, was involved in some kind of illegitimate relationship with a famous person somewhere in the world --your bog standard dukes, popes and emperors. Starting with Ferdinand's  unlikely speculation about a connection with the Colonni and moving on through more particular and less likely stories connecting Columbus with various religions and national communities, all we've got is a suspicion that something was going on. What we cannot say is that Columbus was hanging out with Vikings and premature Grand Bank-voyagers. 

iv) We should probably pay more attention to the settlement of Macaronesia, which was the breath-taking insight of J. H. Parry, forty years past, and the insight remains pristine if we just dial back Parry's triumphalism a bit.  No-one goes there because the history of the individual islands is so limited and particular. On the one  hand, Flores Island in the Azores is 1200km from Lisbon and 100km from St. John's. On the other hand, it is 143 square kilometers with a population of less than 4000 people and it is a bit surprising that it is still inhabited at all with ongoing depopulation of rural regions in Iberia. It was never exactly heavily populated, and were it not for occasional round ships calling on their way from Terceira to Europe to take cargos of train oil (whale, seal, fish), salt fish, wool, hides and sugar, it would not have been substantially populated at all. It was enough of a struggle to get an initial population established there at all in the period between the first officially-attested discovery of 1452 and its Sixteenth Century heyday. Columbus did visit the Azores, as they were a fairly obvious jumping off point to a chivalric voyage of exploration and adventure, but lots of people seem to have thought that, and got exactly nowhere. As people even before Parry have been quick to point out, the onshore wind in the Azores is from the west, and you are not going to make much progress against it. 

As equally frequently pointed out, the winds in the Canaries are westerly, and they are an excellent place to  jump off for the New World. In spite of this, no-one seems to have done it before Columbus, but we should also note that the westernmost Canary island, and jumping off point for the New World, La Palma, was finally conquered only in 1493, with a suspiciously "Middle Ground"-style deal between Alonso Fernandez de Lugo and Tanausu. Apart from royal support, the Columbian expedition relied heavily on private capital, and the conquest of existing Canary Islands was a safer sink of Genoese venture capital than a venture seeking new ones.  
As, again, frequently noted, voyages back to Europe from the Canaries with slaves and dyewood often cast west and north from the Canaries to find favourable winds, and are so probably the means by which the Azores were discovered and Madeira settled. That being said, a focus on the Genoese is probably in order given their participation in the Reconquista in general, in Andalusia specifically, and their mercantile involvement in the establishment of direct, round ship routes between the Andalusian ports and Europe. 

I need hardly notice the importance of wool and soapwort in these voyages, and the value of an industrial fat in association with those goods. The Genoese were explicitly exploring the main advantage of the round ships, which was range between replenishments, turning both on crew reductions and provisioning. As technology advanced, more ambitious "wheels" in the mid-Atlantic make sense. With so much of what Bishop de Las Casas said recast as dubious we need no longer parse the story of the first voyage for evidence that Columbus, or anyone, understood the "wheel of the winds" when he sailed. The question is rather how people navigated at the time. 

Here I return to the marine industries aspect. We have heard by now quite enough of scholars, astronomers and astrologers. When entire fleets of fishing boats can set out from western Europe for the Grand Banks within decades of discovery, we can be sure that the everyday navigational skills of the floating proletariat were up to finding remote fishing grounds. Bearing, familiar winds, star sights, timing, lead lines, soundings. It is a terrifically dangerous way to go to sea, but evidently enough in skilled hands. In that sense, Columbus was just looking for a new fishing grounds. Plenty of men had found them before him; and so did he. It is no Amadis of Gaul, but it did create a house of Spanish grandees, and I think Amadis would have approved. 

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